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Teen Audiences and Education Programs
Evan Wildstein, Manager of Education and Adult Learning Programs, OPERA America
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Original Content4/6/2010

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The most recent Opera Education Survey Report (2008) reported that opera companies are devoting less time and resources to teen audiences. This survey found that grades 6-8 represented 5% of education audiences, while grades 9-12 comprised 8%. In 2006, the survey found the same audiences were 12% and 9%, respectively. There is consensus in the field that it is a challenge to reach teen audiences for many reasons. "In general," says Fort Worth Opera Education Director Clyde Berry, "teens are the trickiest audience because you have to justify why anything you want them to know is important. If you can't make it relevant to them with real-world connections, then they're not going to 'buy' it."

In March, OPERA America hosted a teleconference with member company education directors to discuss programs for teen audiences. During the call, both performance-based (opera creation workshops, opera camps, dress rehearsals and residencies) and non-performance-based (curricular programs, lectures and internships) programs were discussed. For teen audiences, companies appear to be focusing resources on non-performance-based programs. While tried-and-true programs — dress rehearsals, tours, etc. — are still being offered, more energy is being spent on building administrative and non-performance skills.

Success with these age groups comes from working with small groups, keeping programs and interactions uncomplicated, and tapping into what they already know. A good return comprises getting the school — through the students' engagement — to commit to opera companies and their programs. A culture can be created in which teachers want to be involved. In turn, those teachers get their students involved who, in turn, get their parents involved.

The relationship between an opera company and a school can be created or strengthened by documenting how programs are relevant to what students are studying. It helps to review standards (federal, state and local, according to the Department of Education) ahead of time and share that information with educators and principals. Further, educators are more likely to promote an opera company partnership if programs not only meet established needs, but help them teach something that is typically difficult to communicate. Opera is a collaborative, multi-media art form, so companies should think beyond the realm of music — including social history, economics, English language arts and even technology. "[Teens] are the most linked in technology-wise," says Berry. "They'll tweet, blog, text, voicemail and Facebook new things immediately. Just be ready for their honest and unrestrained feedback!"

The 2009 Opera Education Survey Report is expected to be available by fall 2010. For questions about the survey or information in this article, please contact Education@operaamerica.org.
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